Devin Townsend turned producer because no-one else could capture his ambitious musical ideas. It led him on a 25-year learning curve that shows no sign of ending...
Devin Townsend is not afraid to deploy large forces in his music. The Canadian musician and producer has made some 25 studio albums: some under his own name, like the new one Empath, some as the Devin Townsend Band or the Devin Townsend Project, and on his recording debut in 1994, as Strapping Young Lad. He's produced other artists' records, such as Lamb Of God's As The Palaces Burn in 2003, he's made ambient albums like 2004's Devlab, he's thrown in blues and country flavours, as on his Casualties Of Cool (2014), and he's shown himself to be skilled with everything from blistering death metal to quiet laid-back contemplation, as a singer, composer, guitarist, keyboardist, producer, programmer and mixer.
"I've been doing this for so long," he says with a sigh, "that people often say to me, well, how does this new one compare to your other work? And I'm like, well, it's the same shit, it's just this year's version of it. The process maybe changes a bit, but the intention's almost always identical: trying to get it right."
Empath, the new record, is the most impressive display yet of the large forces he relishes. It's Devin's most detailed, textural, and densely packed record so far. And as you might imagine, this kind of elaborate intricacy comes with its own particular set of interlocking and occasionally mind-numbing problems. The 'I Am I' section from a 23‑minute track called 'Singularity' serves as an example of the complexity on offer. "There's synths and choirs and loops," he says, outlining only part of the musical content, "and there's death metal vocals underneath the choir. Then, when I'm mixing, the snare sounds right with the mix, but it sounds terrible when you turn it up, like murk. But if you compress it, to try to have the snare hammer down with the rest of it, all of a sudden the choirs and the orchestras turn to gobbledegook." But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Before we deal with the mixing, we really ought to do some recording.
As a teenager in Vancouver, Devin discovered that the local music store rented out a Tascam four-track. That allowed him to learn how to stack up vocal harmonies, which in turn led to guitar harmonies. He joined and formed and left bands, as you do, and at 17 or so he decided to make some demos at a little local studio in Vancouver where all the cool demos were recorded. "I remember saying to the guy, listen, I really like the Enya record Watermark, and I really like Ride The Lightning by Metallica, and I kind of want those, with the Def Leppard sound. And he was just like, 'Yeah... no!' It was very clearly a case of, well, you can't do that. And I was thinking, well, I want to do that." This, among other early moments, led Devin to go it largely alone. Not without collaborators along the way, of course, and not without a learning curve that continues to this day.
"If I'd had the capital or the clout back in the early days to hire someone like Mutt Lange or whoever, I wonder if this thing that I've stumbled upon as a sound would ever have come to fruition. I think at least a certain part of what I do is just because I didn't have anybody telling me no. Until now," he adds, with a smile. "Now I've got more than enough people telling me no. But fortunately I'm too long in the tooth to care."
Following the early Tascam rental, things moved up many notches and he created his own...